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A Tale Of Two Cities

By Joseph P. Braswell
October 01, 1997

Saint Augustine easily stands as one of the greatest theologians in church history and, though he was a prolific writer and the author of many outstanding tomes, his magnum opus is surely The City of God. In this classic apologetic treatise Augustine provided a unified interpretation to the ever-changing landscape of rising and falling empires, comprehending particulars under a universal by relating what had heretofore seemed to be unrelated (unconnected) events, separated by space and time.

Augustine's Contribution
With Augustine's philosophy of history, the idea of history was enlarged and broadened. It was no longer culturally relative or intra-cultural in an ethnic or nationalistic sense; it was no longer merely the story of one nation or people, or the rise and fall of one empire — parochial stories meaningful only to the society in question during its brief moment in the sun. These limited and diverse traditions (histories of peoples) could be gathered together — fitted together — as components of a larger whole: a universal history, a human history, a world history that, in its cosmic breadth and sweep from creation to consummation, transcended any and every provincialist ethnocentricity. It was the larger drama (the big picture) that gave meaning to the brief times of ascendancy that the many empires successively enjoyed on the world stage. Rather than being but instances of endlessly repeated, ultimately meaningless cycles of nations and empires simply arising successively out of shadowy mythology and passing into shadowy oblivion in the Heraclitean stream of directionless time, each era and each participant — Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome — contributed something to the progression of the one story.

Augustine saw human history as at bottom a tale of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. By speaking thus of a city, Augustine intended a society: people bonded together by common values and/or mutual interests into a cooperative community. However, he did not view this social organization (the social contract) as having a primarily material base (e.g., economics and an organization of social structures — relations of production — around the means of production). Instead, he viewed these societies as united in spirit by an idea or story. In other words, the social cohesion of these societies — the social fabric that binds the community — is rooted in a shared cultural vision that provides community self-understanding and self-definition. That cultural self-identity and cultural project is expressive of, is rooted in, fundamentally religious beliefs and values — a meaning-providing metaphysical totality-vision or world-and-life-view — that is collectively shared by the members of the community, serving as a common ground of social constitution and cooperation. The communities are essentially constituted as communities of faith.

Two Cities, Two Lives
As Augustine put the matter, the two societies arise out of two distinct loves: the love of God and the love of self, respectively. By such love he meant an absolute and supreme devotion. The object of such love is that which we most value and cherish, that chief end to which we wholeheartedly give ourselves to serve and which commands our primary allegiance. He thus thought in terms of basic existential orientations, of basic commitments that ethically predispose us and direct us in our comportment with ultimate reality, determining what we regard as our highest good and the object of our ultimate concern.

Augustine saw these two loves as polar opposites, as mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed, and interpreted human history as the conflict between these antithetical principles. One cannot serve two masters; there can be no divided loyalty or doublemindedness, for the claim of each master is all or nothing — absolutist and totalitarian in nature. However, it is not simply that a wholehearted, single-minded commitment is by nature exclusive and cannot allow for rivals. The objects of such love are themselves set in the starkest contrast as radically different in character. What fellowship has light with darkness, righteousness with wickedness, Christ with Belial, or the temple of God with idols? The wisdom and power of God stand over against the wisdom and power of the world in absolute antithesis, and friendship with the world is enmity with God. Thus, rather than merely being a case of intolerance for competing ideologies and a drive toward a monolithic conformity against pluralism and diversity, the antithesis is a reflection of the suprahuman warfare between God and the demonic powers as an antithesis between good and evil in the absolute sense.

For Augustine, the religious dimension of human existence is basic. Man as the image of God is fundamentally a religious being. He must refer himself and all his life to an absolute reference-point, be this the true God or an idol generated from a false absolutization of the relative (a worshipping of the creature rather than the Creator). The very constitution of man as a religious being necessitates that he either must refer himself to his true reference-point and origin of meaning, or he must exchange the truth for a lie and worship a false god generated from his own darkened imagination. Because as the image of God he ever exists instrinsically as being-unto-God (necessarily related to God), man is in this religious act of reference either obedient or disobedient to his divine calling to image God; he is either a covenant-breaker or a covenant-keeper, but he inescapably remains a covenant being. Accordingly, his every activity remains essentially covenantal in character as a response to the divine calling, to the covenantal revelation presented to him in every fact of his situation. His every response is fundamentally religious and ethical — either as obedient or as rebellious and idolatrous. He chooses whom he will serve, but he must, as a law of his created being, religiously serve something deemed by him to be his highest good and ultimate concern. In this he merely recognizes his radical self-insufficiency — his dependence, relativity, or contingency — and seeks to identify that upon which he is ultimately dependent.

However, in idolatrously absolutizing an aspect of creation (a relative good) and seeking to serve it, fallen man is actually seeking only to serve himself. In every false religion it is not simply the object of devotion that is false (the exchange of the truth of God for a lie); the very act of piety itself is corrupted and distorted. That is, sinful man always has ulterior motives for his devotion to his god-concept; he is self-concerned and self-serving, acting in self-centered self-interest for self-fulfillment. All false religion is at bottom egoistic.

Of course, the true service of the true God is true self-fulfillment, and we can speak of a proper love of self — an affirmation of one's selfhood, a striving toward self-actualization — in Christian-Theistic ethics. We speak of the Kingdom of God as man's highest good and the chief end of man being to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We therein recognize that man is a hungry and thirsty being — a self-insufficient and dependent being — who must find satisfaction for his needs and existential longings, who is driven by a restless heart to seek rest. We recognize that there is nothing wrong as such in man's seeking "glory and honor and immortality" (Rom. 2:7) as he seeks the fulfillment of his being in the LORD as his "exceedingly great reward" (Gen. 15:1), and we may even (with due qualifications) call this a form of enlightened self-interest in which to lose one's life is to gain it, to acquire the one thing needful. However, fallen man perverts this quest for self-realization by absolutizing his selfhood as the final (or ultimate) reference-point, by making all things relative to what he perversely imagines to be his needs and desires according to a false self-image (the self-delusion of autonomy) and an altogether selfish impulse. He is curved in upon himself egocentrically in self-preoccupation and self-absorption. He deifies himself and so serves the god of his own belly — an infinite and insatiable, all-consuming appetite for things that cannot truly satisfy his soul.

Thus, in a reflexive, dialectical relation, man defines himself in terms of what he believes he needs (not simply for survival and subsistence, but for quality of life and felicity as well). For example, if he absolutizes the material, he conceives of himself in these terms, projecting a false self-image of materialistic man with wholly material needs, as in Marxism. At any rate, fallen man in his fallen piety serves his gods solely for what they can do for him, for his being and well-being. His is a legalistic, thoroughly self-serving religion of using the idol-gods as means to an end; it is a religion that, seeking to manipulate the divine and so control his own destiny, is truly an absolutized love of self.

The Creed and Agenda of the City of Man
The City of Man, according to Augustine, is rooted in the love of self (albeit, the false self projected by his would-be autonomous act of self-definition and self-understanding). This religious love is an idolatrous commitment that is egocentric and egoistic. It is a narcissistic self-absolutization (self-deification) that expresses the will to absolute autonomy in revolt against the theonomous and theocentric love of God. This self-love lays claim to the earth as solely and exclusively man's, as material with which he can do as he wills, according to his autonomous project. Man answers to no higher authority in doing what he will with that which he has appropriated as his property and possession; enjoyment of the world in self-gratification is the end, and this end justifies any and every means that serve its attainment.

The City of Man thus begins upon the assumption of a state of nature in which a community is formed by a humanistic social contract. We again cannot but note the dialectical tensions involved in humanism, for humanism must begin with a state of nature and thus with a state of anarchy — of egoistic individualism — that must give way to a social contract based on mutual interests and mutual need-fulfillment as but a means to the ends of each autonomous individual. Each individual, in coming together in the formation of a community, must (however grudgingly) subordinate his interests to the collective good so that the community may in turn serve him in the ultimate attainment of his individual good. He forfeits certain freedoms in a voluntary submission to social order and institutional authority in order that the community may make him free in other respects: having a more stable and secure existence under the protection of laws and with the material benefits that come from cooperation and a division of labor. He deifies the state and ascribes to it an absolute authority in the interests of what he believes to be his own salvation.

Statism can be the only result of this social contract, for ethics are conventional. There is no moral order that transcends the social context; it is the community of persons that creates the rules that constitute and regulate the community, and the community is the necessary context for the individual's meaningful existence. In an impersonal universe there is no higher personal context than human society, and it is this exclusively human social context that institutes conventions of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the public domain. If the love of self can be fulfilled only in social cooperation, then the social order must be preserved by absolute allegiance to the social ethic that, as a categorically imperative expression of universalizable conducts judged to be beneficial to the preservation and proper functioning of the group (e.g., not lying, killing, stealing), ultimately serves the being and well-being of the several citizens in their dependence on the cooperative effort of the collective. The state formally sanctions and enforces the reversible principles of behavior that, expressing the expectations of the individuals involved with regard to opportunities for their personal self-fulfillment, have been universalized by the consensus of the social contract to bind all members of the community to the common good.

The Failure of the City of Man
Yet, this order cannot but be unstable, fraught with a tension between the One and the Many. The sense of duty to the common good often comes in conflict with individual freedom. There is a constant oscillation between anarchy and statism, a struggle over rights or projects in conflict and an ongoing dispute over which is to be subordinated to which. The threat of disintegration ever looms over the society and only force can hold the society together. Yet the centralization of power in the State in turn evokes yet greater resistance from the citizens as it, in the name of a common good that seeks to restrict personal freedom (an atomistic, anarchistic individualism), increasingly infringes on the opportunities for personal self-fulfillment by the individuals whose consent creates and sustains the social contract. Ultimate sacrifice to the collective cannot be reconciled with that which called the community into existence in the first place.

Augustine recognized that there can be no real community without justice and, because justice depends upon the Law of God, the City of Man would ever tend toward disintegration. With every man being his own god and seeking his own ends, there can be no true community spirit of loving one's neighbor and giving oneself to service; one cannot treat others as an end rather than a means if one begins from the autonomous individual and views cooperation self-servingly as but a means to one's self-interests. Even if an order of enlightened self-interest can be established wherein all parties look at the big picture and the long-term consequences in their choices (thus refraining from actions detrimental to the social fabric), if each member ultimately chooses for his own good, ultimate sacrifice to the good of others is inconceivable without a civil religion that posits the postulates of practical reason as regulative principles. Self-interest must be projected beyond the earthly-temporal into a context of eternal reward, enlarging the big picture of long-term beneficial consequences to include earthly-temporal sacrifice of self-fulfillment. Thus, public gods are useful; civil religion serves the state and inspires patriotism, encouraging that public morality and spirit of civic duty necessary for the survival of the social order.

The Theonomic Implications of Augustine
Civil religion is an inescapable fact of any civil order. For the organization of the City of Man into tribes and nations there were tribal gods and national deities — the gods of Egypt; the gods of the Philistines or Canaanites; the gods of Babylon, Greece, or Rome — who provided to these societies a mythological foundation that ordained and sanctioned the ruling order, providing a "divine right" for the rulers and a purpose and destiny for the people. We must not be deceived when our own national leaders invoke "God" to command our loyalty and call us to a "sacred task" of public service. For the City of Man such religion is purely utilitarian and pragmatic; it is good politics.

If, however, every civil order must have a civil religion, it follows that there is no reason why we cannot establish Christian-Theism as a civil religion, as Theonomy advocates. However, this civil religion cannot be a tool of the state, something to be manipulated to further statist goals. The Theonomic civil religion by its very nature requires the state to be under God and to act responsibly and justly in his name. It obliges the state to acknowledge its ministerial role and its accountability to God to act faithfully in the discharge of its appointed duties. In such a conception, religion is not simply invoked to legitimize the state, to bless its autonomous agenda and assert a divine right to do whatsoever it pleases. It rather legitimizes the state as God's ordained minister of justice, divinely commissioned to execute a delegated and strictly circumscribed, limited authority in executing God's judgments according to the Law of God. Theonomy thus inherently challenges the political philosophy of the City of Man and will never be implemented by those who view religion in utilitarian terms as but a means for establishing a workable social order. It can only come by regeneration and grassroots faith (the vision of the City of God), not by top-down legislation; it will come as a recognition of the truth, not as a useful fiction and an opiate of the people encouraged by the ruling class.


Topics: Church History, Apologetics, Philosophy, Statism, Justice, Biblical Law

Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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